HAVANA, Cuba — A cholera outbreak in eastern Cuba has put the best and worst of the island’s image-conscious socialist system on stark display.
Cuba’s well-regarded public health system has responded aggressively to the disease, quickly treating patients, providing clean water and mobilizing a sanitation campaign. They say the rate of infection is diminishing, and the outbreak appears to be almost entirely limited to an area around the eastern city of Manzanillo, where it has killed three senior citizens and sickened at least 110.
Such information is critical to Cubans worried the disease could spread across the island and reach their families. Only, they’d have to be watching CNN to get it.
Anxious Cubans who have looked to state-controlled news broadcasts and newspapers for up-to-date information about the cholera outbreak have instead found the usual fare of dull crop reports, government propaganda and anti-American editorials.
Castro government opponents and south Florida Cuban exiles have gladly stepped in to fill the void, claiming the cholera outbreak has been far worse than official versions. Those accounts quote dissident activists in eastern Cuba and other locals describing chaotic conditions at clinics, a shortage of hygiene products and a much higher number of infected patients.
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Health officials in the Manzanillo area have reportedly been giving regular health updates on local television, but Cuba’s national media has been noticeably silent. By saying so little for so long, the government lets the rumors stand, even if the truth is otherwise.
"The number of cases is dropping," said Dr. Manuel Santin Peña, Cuba's national director of epidemiology, in an interview with CNN, the first foreign media outlet which the government has spoken to and allowed to visit a hospital in the Manzanillo area.
"That doesn't make us confident so much as make us work to intensify all our preventive measures so that in the next few weeks we can stop the outbreak,” Santin said.
Such reassurances were nowhere to be found Friday. Instead, the Communist party newspaper Granma reported on Cuba’s Olympic hopefuls, the political crisis in Paraguay, and a highway repair project in the province of Granma, the same place where the outbreak has occurred. There wasn't a word about cholera.
This despite the first outbreak on the island since the 1880s, when Cuba was a Spanish colony.
In recent years Cubans have been increasingly outspoken in venting their frustrations at the timidity of the island’s state-controlled media. The outlets are notorious for staying silent on major news developments until powerful Communist party officials give permission.
Cuban President Raul Castro himself has chided state broadcasters and newspapers in his public speeches, urging them to hold government bureaucrats to account and expose wrongdoing.
But the cholera outbreak has shown once more that when the news is not good news, it tends to go unreported. That information vacuum is a gift to the dissident blogs and US-government funded broadcasters like Radio and TV Marti that the Cuban government says it loathes.
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Cuban authorities have said almost nothing about the disease since a July 3 statement acknowledging it has caused three deaths and sickened 53. That statement attributed the cholera to contaminated well water, and gave no indication where the bacteria may have come from.
“We have the necessary resources to treat patients at all of our medical facilities,” the statement said. “We urge the public to observe proper sanitary measures with their personal hygiene, water and food.”
Thousands of Cuban medical personnel have worked in neighboring Haiti, where more than 500,000 cases of cholera have been detected in the past two years and at least 7,000 have died. That outbreak has also spread across Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic.
Not surprisingly, anti-Castro lawmakers representing heavily Cuban-American districts in south Florida have used the outbreak as a cudgel against the Castro government, presenting it as a new reason not to visit the island.
Cuban health officials have acknowledged — again, to the international press, not Cuba’s state media — that at least one case has been detected in Havana. But the patient appeared to have picked up the bacteria from the Manzanillo area where the outbreak is centered. There has been no sign of special concern at hospitals in the capital.
In Manzanillo the government has responded by distributing soap and chlorine tablets for water treatment, and running public information announcements reminding locals to carefully wash their hands, drink treated water and avoid swimming or fishing in potentially contaminated areas. No quarantine is in effect, but local officials have urged residents to avoid non-essential travel.
Cholera kills as many as 120,000 people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization, and sickens between 3 and 5 million.
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